Categories: News
      Date: Jun 12, 2018
     Title: ALA Conference in Washington DC 2018

Ayebia at the 44th ALA Conference in Washington DC 23–26 May 2018
Title: Pioneering African Women Publishers: Publishing as Cultural Activism
By Nana Ayebia Clarke MBE on Friday 25th May 2018



Ayebia at the 44th ALA Conference in Washington DC 23–26 May 2018

Title: Pioneering African Women Publishers: Publishing as Cultural Activism

By Nana Ayebia Clarke MBE on Friday 25th May 2018

When the Nigerian writer Flora Nwapa published her debut novel Efuru in 1966 by William Heinemann, it marked the beginning of a literary revolution in Africa.

As a writer, Flora Nwapa was a trailblazer at a time when African women writers were not on the radar of most publishers in the metropolitan capitals of the West. Nwapa was quick to recognize her treatment by her then London Publisher as a “minor writer” because they did not make the effort necessary to print and distribute her books locally or internationally. According to Dr Marie Umeh, Heinemann’s placing of Nwapa’s work in the literary backwaters resulted in the piracy of her books in Africa and the death of her voice globally. Her publishing house Tana Press Limited was set up in 1977 to redress this anomaly. Nwapa identified a gap in the market and filled it with brilliant books and with considerable success.

Meanwhile the idea of establishing an indigenous publishing house in Ghana was first given thought in the 1950s by the eminent writer and cultural activist Mrs Efua T. Sutherland. Afram Publications was set up in 1973 and first operated from her Dzorwulu compound in Accra at “Araba Mansa.” Sutherland had discussed the idea with Professor K.A. Busia and J.B. Danquah and a number of eminent writers and scholars of the time who felt the time was right (after Ghana gained her independence in 1957 from British colonial rule) for such an indigenous venture to be established as an outlet for showcasing Ghanaian creative talent in Ghana and to the rest of the world.

The company came by its name in an interesting manner. Prior to the flooding and the construction of the Akosombo Dam in 1964 and 1965, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah put together a research team made up of the founders of the company and some young graduates from the University of Ghana; who went to the Afram Plains to collect data on the people, places and cultural practices of the area. The idea was to ensure that the history of the area to be flooded would not be lost to society completely after the construction of the dam. In a tribute to the overwhelming findings and work of the team in the Afram Plains and the inspiration from A. A. Opoku's poem on the River Afram, the founders decided to name the publishing house Afram Publications. Afram is still active and is now run by Sutherland’s eldest daughter Esi Sutherland-Addy in Ghana.

Now to connect Africa to its Diasporas…

Sixty years ago a landmark in publishing was established. In 1958, the first publication of the West Indian Gazette Afro-Asian and Caribbean News brought to London and the UK an outlook on life that had not been seen before. It was the result of the enterprise of a remarkable woman – Claudia Jones, a journalist and an activist. Trinidad-born Claudia Jones resided for most of her life in the US (after migrating there with her family when she was nine years old) before she was deported from the US in 1955 for her Communist sympathies. As her homeland was then still a British colony, she was sent to its ‘mother country’ Britain.

Ayebia published Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment (Ayebia, 2011) edited by the eminent scholar Carole Boyce Davies comprising autobiographical reflections, essays and poems by Claudia Jones. Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment and The Legacy of Efua Sutherland: Pan African Cultural Activism (Ayebia, 2007) co-edited by Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy are two books that I am most proud to have published.

Claudia Jones founded two of Black Britain’s most important institutions, the first black newspaper (as mentioned earlier The West Indian Gazette) and she was also a founding organizing member of the Notting Hill Carnival. Claudia Jones was an iconic figure who inspired a generation of black activists and deserves to be much more widely publicized.

Today, Claudia Jones is recognized as an icon for people of African descent as well as for women’s rights and her Marxist credentials. She is one of the few people (other than the Queen of England) to have had her portrait on the country’s national postage stamp.

What these remarkable women all had in common was their courage, agency but above all they had vision. A vision of an African story told through African lens and published by Publishers who understand the conditions under which the work was formed. As Claudia Jones famously put it, ‘a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom…’ if we allow our art to be interpreted by others then they will not do justice to art they don’t value or understand. We must therefore resist all attempts by outsiders to validate us!

These women realized they lacked a public voice for their aspirations and a channel of communication to document the concerns within their communities and beyond and set about creating these spaces for their voices to be heard unadulterated by outside influences. Their publishing houses broke the mould.

Publishing is important because it is not just a question of words on a page. Publishing enables us to document our history, celebrate our achievements and inform and educate the rest of the world about our cultural contributions to world knowledge. And one of the most important aspects of publishing is educational publishing and its role in shaping and developing the minds of especially the younger generation about inclusiveness.

As Chinua Achebe famously said, “what I personally wish this century to see – is a balance of stories where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where we are not victims of other people’s accounts. This is not to say that nobody should write about anybody else – I think they should, but those that have been written about should also participate in the making of these stories.”

Buchi Emecheta OBE – apart from being a pioneer writer was also a publisher. She established her publishing company Ogwugwu Afor in 1986 – named after a powerful female deity from her native village in Ibusa. Since her passing in 2017, her son Sylvester Onwordi who is here has set up Omenala Press drawing on the foundations of Ogwugwu Afor to reprint and market her books – I am sure he will tell us more during his presentation…)

It is universally acknowledge that the business of publishing is the preserve of white middle-class and Oxbridge educated elite.

But these pioneering African women publishers started their own publishing companies because they felt the Western publishers were not meeting their needs and did not promote their work adequately because they did not value it. But creating these spaces they inspired the next generation of African women publishers – in effect they are our role models.

In so doing, they opened up spaces and spearheaded what would become the beginning of a literary revolution in writing about female challenges and experiences and publishing their narratives on the continent in publishing houses owned by them at a time when African women writers were and publishers were unheard of.

My idea of disobedient subversion is exactly what these African women publishers did when they felt undervalued.

When I arrived at Heinemann’s African Writers Series at Oxford in 1991, apart from being the sole black face in the International Department that published and promoted the AWS, the Series was seven years away from celebrating its 40th Anniversary. I remember attending that event with my colleagues at a classy venue in London and meeting the Great Chinua Achebe for the first time. I was intrigued that he came in a wheelchair because no one had informed me of his accident in his home country in Nigeria which left him paralysed. During the 12 years that I worked there I cannot recollect the department hosting African women writers apart from Buchi Emecheta with whom I toured when her books were published in the AWS. Realizing this imbalance in promoting African women’s narratives, I set about to consciously commission women’s narratives – a kind of “privileging of women’s voices and values.” Some of the writers who were published during my time as the first Black woman Editor of the African Writers Series in 50 years of the Series existence included Ama Ata Aidoo, Veronique Tadjo, Yvonne Vera, Leila Aboulela and Lilia Momple amongst others.

I started Ayebia in 2003 after I left Heinemann as a way of looking to new directions in African publishing. One of the first things I did when I started my own publishing house was to publish an African Love Stories: An Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo in 2006.

Why publish a love story anthology? Because I had spent 12 years at Heinemann trying to convince my colleagues that we needed to publish a collection of narratives solely focused on the theme of “love stories from Africa” to counterbalance the negativity in narratives published by mainstream British publishing houses about Africa. At Heinemann we had published narratives on child soldiers, battered women, the Rwanda genocide, female genital mutilation et al and I felt very strongly that we needed to balance the perception of Africa in the Western imagination as a place of death, destruction and decay with positive narratives that portray the real Africa – warts and all.

Needless to say the African Love Stories Anthology has gone on to win two prestigious prizes – The Caine Prize for African Writing in 2007 and the African Studies Association Best Book in 2008. This is proof, if proof were needed that international audiences are susceptible to reading other stories that don’t denigrate Africa.

What is the situation today? Most independent publishers will readily admit that the book market can be a challenging place and funding to invest in new titles becomes their number one priority. Thankfully, things are changing and spaces for new voices are opening up for newer readers. The Internet has created a reading revolution that has democratized the way readers approach new books. Covers play a key role and one of the things people say to me about Ayebia books is the quality and attractiveness of the covers. It’s important to me that people can have a relationship with Ayebia books before they read or even open them – that they would want to pick them up, touch them and see what is inside. I have a small selection of some of our covers here (show slide with Ayebia covers and compare Ayebia’s cover of Nervous Conditions with the Feminist Press cover to illustrate the point).

 

But I admit, I do have an activist sensibility. Very often women’s voices and experiences tend to be sidelined or marginalized unconsciously. I think publishing women’s stories and championing their causes is a hugely political act particularly if one thinks about the way publishing is owned, how the media is owned, who gets to make the decisions on what goes forward and what is rejected and the representation of women (especially black women or women of colour). Men and women approach a text very differently based on their lived experiences – not necessarily because they are women but because of the way power is structured and filtered in our society. Needless to say that there was a time (not so long ago – maybe 30/40 years ago) in Africa when married women couldn’t open a bank account or acquire a loan without the consent or permission of their husbands – that may not be the case today but it has left a lasting legacy regarding the treatment of women as less than.

As Buchi Emecheta once famously said: “Black women all over the world should reunite and re-examine how history has portrayed us.”

What is the situation in publishing today…? There is plethora of African women publishers operating on the continent as well as in the Diaspora. For the sake of time I will mention just a handful…

In Ghana there is Sub Sahara Press, from Nigeria there is Cassava Republic Press, from Uganda there is FEMWRITE, in South Africa there are several incredible female-centred publishing houses but again due to the constraints of time I will mention a few – Huze Press and Modjaji Books (Collen Higgs at Modjaji publishes a bi-annual African Small Publishers catalogue in Cape Town in South Africa). These publishing houses are birthing some of the best books today such as Haruna Atta’s recently issued The Hundred Wells of Salaga – a tale of desire and intrigue in 19th century Ghana published by Cassava Press.

When I was doing my research for this paper I tried Googling African women publishers and found that most of the information on the Internet documented women publishers in the North (i.e., Europe, USA, Canada, UK and India) but information about women publishers of African descent was at best patchy and at worst missing).

What we do as independent publishers is important because of what we bring to the table. We tend to be more adventurous and radical by publishing books that mainstream publishers will either reject or ignore.

Occasionally one gets a kindly note of acknowledgement from writers who have passed though one’s hands.

I had one such note recently from one of the most gifted writers I came across when I worked as Editor of the African Writers Series. Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer with an incredible economy of use of language in creating magical settings and narratives that sets one’s imagination on fire! I saw the merit in what she was doing and selected her story “The Museum” which was featured in an anthology of African women’s writing titled Opening Spaces edited by the late brilliant Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera (Heinemann AWS, 1999) which went on to win the inaugural Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000.

She sent me her latest collection of short stories just published this year titled Elsewhere, Home (Telegram, 2018) with an Acknowledgement Page which read: ‘…

“I am grateful to the very first Caine Prize judging panel, the Chair Ben Okri, and the others including Vernique Tadjo, William Boyd et al for selecting “The Museum” as the winner. But it would not have reached their hands had it not been submitted by the champion of African writing and publishing – Nana Ayebia Clarke, to whom I, and many others, owe a great deal.”

On January 13, 2017 a Google Doodle paid homeage to Flora Nwapa on what would have been her 86th birthday.

I have been reliably and (confidentially) informed by Efua Sutherland’s estate that Google had contacted them to alert them about contemplating a Doodle for her birthday on June 27th 2018 on what would have been her 94th birthday. It seems the contributions and voices of our pioneering African women publishers is finally being recognized and given the due credit.

There’s an African parable that I am borrowing from a friend about some mischievous young boys who set out to embarrass the village wise elder. The boys wanted to prove that the old man was no smarter than anyone else. They went to him with a bird and asked him if it was dead or alive. If he said it was dead, they would let the bird fly; if he said it was alive, they would wring its neck and kill it. One way or another, the wise man had to lose.  “Old man,” they said, “is the bird dead or alive?” The wise man looked at the boys, paused for a minute and replied thoughtfully. “Young men, the answer is in your hands.”

There’s no way to predict the future with any level of certainty, but the answer to the challenges and problems that we face in correcting the misconceptions and misrepresentation of Africa in the world will remain, as it always has, in our collective hands.

Thank you  ----- The End.